UK boffin demos plane-based broadband

Whatever next?

Radio scientists in the UK have successfully demonstrated the first air-to-ground mesh broadband connection. A microlight plane established a broadband connection with the South Witham mesh, at an altitude of 2,000 feet. Voice and data traffic was sent over the link.

The project, in late January, was prompted by Australian mesh network provider Make Me Wireless, which is evaluating potential new markets for mesh technology. A mesh network is a self-configuring, self-healing network of broadband nodes that routes data, through the network, to an internet connection. Advocates of the technology maintain that it is particularly well suited to regions where it is hard to lay cables.

A perfect example of such a region is the Australian outback, where there are many isolated meterological stations. At the moment, data is collected from many of these by hand, with teams driving out to each station in turn to pick up the readings. Collecting data from the outback weather stations is very laborious, and Make Me Wireless wanted to know if the data could be collected by a plane flying over the weather stations instead.

The company approached Roy Eddleston, a UK-based radio technology specialist, to find out if ground-to-air mesh networking would be feasible. Eddleston told us: "I thought it should work in theory, but as far as I knew, no-one had ever tried. Mesh technology seemed ideal, because we could mesh and upload data from several stations at once."

So he set about trying to find out if it could be done.

Simon Steele, director of Make Me Wireless, said: "Roy is joining us in Australia to help develop our Mesh offerings. We discussed that we had been approached about airborne Mesh and the next thing we knew he had liaised with Ofcom, the UK telecommunications regulator, sorted the aircraft, pilot, and arranged the test flight."

The test flight was carried out in a microlight aircraft. This has a composite hull, vital to the attempt because the antennae had to be kept inside the plane. Eddleston explained: "If the antennae are externally mounted, you need CAA approval. But an aluminium plane is effectively a faraday cage. So the microlight was the ideal test craft."

The amount of data that needs to be collected shouldn't pose any problems, he says. "If you have a downward-facing, omni-directional antenna and you take a circular flight path, there is no problem caused by a doppler effect, and you just fly around that path until you have uploaded all the data."

The test was conducted using LocustWorld MeshAP PRO and Asterisk VoIP equipment, and more tests are planned as soon as the weather clears. The trials in South Witham have proved the point, Eddleston says, but it is still early days.

Although Eddleston reckons the technology only needs another couple of months of development - mostly on antenna design, he says he doesn't know what stage the weather stations are at. ®

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